• Judith Skiming

Science: The superpower needed for electoral success?

“Has Science saved the world?” This is the hubristic, and rather pre-emptive, title of a display about the development of the COVID-19 vaccines at the entrance to the science department at the secondary school I teach at. At one level, this is a rhetorical boast designed to remind students to consider the importance and value of their science lessons and hopefully encourage more to choose science for their GCSE options.

School display image
Has science saved the world?

But on a deeper level, and given the circumstances surrounding the pandemic over the past 16 months, the title speaks to a much wider debate that we should be having across the world and well outside the confines of secondary school education.


The idea of science being instrumental in “saving the world” is something that should not only be being discussed in school science departments but should also be informing policy in Whitehall and Westminster. The ongoing relevance and importance of science should be the focus of a national debate. The question “Has science saved the world?” should be displayed in neon lights across Piccadilly Circus and reflected upon by politicians, policymakers, and the public. Despite the conspiracist grumblings of a minority, it is evident that science, with its associated vaccine technologies, has revealed its true ‘superpower’ potential since March 2020. This superpower has not only saved UK citizens from COVID-19 but has also saved the government from the electoral consequences of its shambolic handling of the pandemic.


There have been many times over the past year, when switching on a news channel, I have been reminded of a dystopian comic book universe. Politicians from around the globe have been seen at podiums addressing their nations with no co-ordinated international agenda and sadly little recognition that with great power comes great responsibility. Gripped instead by a desire to appeal to the lowest common denominator, this has led to vaccine nationalism and insufficient financial support for individuals, with the seeming belief that if they simply say something enough times then that makes it true. See Trump hawking hydroxychloroquine or Hancock’s imaginary protective ring around care homes.


Meanwhile, all around, people were dying.


And then, after many dark months of the villainous and incompetent seemingly having the upper hand, science and the vaccine armoury swept in to take centre stage. Finally this gave lucky citizens in richer countries a reason for some renewed optimism. This was reflected in UK local elections in May 2021 when incumbent parties were given a vote of confidence in general. The fact that scientists from across the world have successfully developed multiple safe and highly effective vaccines for COVID-19 is a phenomenal achievement. This triumph of science has been watched and appreciated in real time by the UK public. If ever there was a time for people to believe in and embrace the superpower that is science, then that time is now.


Like any successful leader of the opposition must, Keir Starmer has said that he wants Labour to develop policies that look to the future and not to the past. To do this a future Labour government needs to utilize the superpower of science and weave it seamlessly throughout their policy agenda. The UK public have experienced first-hand the positive power that expert science can bring coupled with a unique sense of relief and gratitude. They will surely be receptive to future science-based policies in areas such as climate change, housing, transport and health care. Keir needs to recognise the importance and potential of the superpower that can be harnessed by embracing all things science. With the power of science he can promote a modern, progressive vision for the future. Science is after all is the engine of progress. It could be argued that a similar approach was successfully tried and tested in the past by Wilson [1] and more recently advised by Blair [2]. Science is the superpower that Labour needs to win.


The government has already ‘used’ this superpower for their own benefit as evidenced by the ‘vaccine bounce’ in the polls which translated into the recent local election results. The Tories will no doubt continue to shamelessly exploit this at every opportunity but are unlikely to actually do anything to nurture this superpower and ensure that it continues to thrive for future generations. Labour needs to make the positive case for supporting and embracing science and technology and work closely with scientists to achieve this.


A government that genuinely cared about its citizens and the planet would learn from this past year and actively incentivise and encourage research into the development of new technologies to help protect the UK from global threats such as climate change or future pandemics. However, in a typically cynical move this government is about to preside over devastating cuts to UK university research funding. These changes apparently could cost the sector £1bn and result in the loss of 18000 full time jobs. [3] Given that the disappointing test and trace system has had at least £20bn invested in it so far, it seems ridiculous that the UK’s successful and genuinely ‘world-beating’ research community is to be denied a mere £1bn. [4]


Ministers are clearly not reflecting on the importance of science at all. Labour should be calling them out on this. We should be championing investment in science education, research and innovation and highlighting the hypocrisy of the Tories taking credit for the vaccines whilst withdrawing funding from future research programmes.


We should be calling for much swifter action to combat climate change internationally. We should demand the government adopts proposals to retrofit housing to improve energy efficiency. We should be more vocal in our support of public transport and active travel. And our support for innovation in medicine should be matched by a commitment to fund expedited trials into new drugs to help fight the diseases that affect our lives the most. This is just a taster of what a Labour Party that recognises science as a superpower should be doing.


Keir Starmer has been criticised recently for a lack of vision. To be fair, since becoming Labour Leader the coronavirus restrictions have meant that he has only had limited opportunities to communicate with most people online. Trapped in a perpetual zoom call.


I am hoping that maybe to the undiscerning eye this is why he has appeared too serious and managerial like a Clarke Kent figure, or perhaps seemed too nerdy like Peter Parker. But now that restrictions are lifting we really need the real Keir to come out fighting. Fighting for the future and not for the past. Emerging from his online phone booth, cloaked in a mantle of powerful science, in a transformational whirlwind of energy, optimism and humanity. We definitely need a superhero to beat these Jokers.


Sources:

  1. Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech 50 years on in the Guardian newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/sep/19/harold-wilson-white-heat-technology-speech

  2. Tony Blair - Without total change Labour will die in the New Statesman: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2021/05/tony-blair-without-total-change-labour-will-die

  3. President of Universities UK in the Guardian newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/mar/16/uk-universities-call-for-johnson-to-halt-research-funding-cuts

  4. Test and trace funding: https://fullfact.org/online/37bn-test-trace-spending/

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